The Warning, by Paul L. Mathews

The Subura’s plebeians claimed the smell of Eurysaces’ freshly baked bread made the sun rise, Apollo himself eager to savour the baker’s new loaves. Indeed, Eurysaces—aware of this local legend and eager to please the deity—made a ritual of leaving one of his new loaves on his bakery’s doorstep every morning as an offering to the god. Granted, he wasn’t entirely sure Apollo took it, but it always vanished, nonetheless.

This morning, however, was different. This morning he knew exactly who’d taken the bread. Silhouetted by the rising sun, the culprit stood in his doorway and stuffed chunks of bread into his mouth.

“Durio,” Eurysaces said. He spared the ganger the briefest glance before turning his attention back to kneading another batch of dough. “What do you want?”

“Nudding,” Durio managed to say, his cheeks bulging as he chewed and his nostrils flared as he inhaled the smell of baking bread that permeated the bakery. “I dame here to ward dou.”

Eurysaces stopped kneading. Wiping sweat from his brow as the heat from his ovens swaddled him, he turned to Durio, glaring.

“Stop wasting my time,” he said. “Don’t talk with your mouth full; I can’t make any sense of what you’re saying.”

A pause as Durio chewed and swallowed before saying, “I don’t want anything—“

“Apart from my bread, obviously.”

“Well, yes, but if you’re going to just leave it on the doorstep—”

“I didn’t leave it for you.”

“Eurysaces, do you want to hear what I came to say or not?”

“Will you leave me in peace once you’ve said it?”

“That depends on how you respond.”

Eyes narrowed and lips pursed, Eurysaces wiped his hands on his apron as he studied the ganger. Brawny, bald and with greying eyebrows and stubble, Durio was older than most of the gangers in the Subura. The years had made their mark by way of scars and half a missing ear, bitten off by Pulcher in a fight at the Pomegranate.

“Say your piece and go,” Eurysaces said.

“I came here to warn you. Hostilius wants your bakery.”

“Does he now?” Eurysaces clenched and unclenched his fists as he tried to abate the aching in his swollen, arthritic knuckles. He knew all about Hostilius’ campaign to take over the city’s bakeries, and he’d guessed it was only a matter of time until Hostilius’ gang came to visit. “And what are his terms?”

Durio frowned. “Terms?”

“Terms. How much money will he give me for the bakery? I’m not getting any younger, Durio; I’d happily retire if someone made me the right offer.”

“His terms will be pretty simple: give him your bakery or you die—”

Eurysaces closed the distance to Durio in two strides, rolling his broad shoulders before punching the startled ganger in the nose. Durio toppled backwards and into the street, and what few early-risers were going about their business stopped and stared as the ganger fell onto his back outside the bakery. Teeth clenched, Eurysaces grimaced as a fire of pain swept through his hand. I’m getting old, he thought as he rubbed at his aching knuckles. If only someone would buy the bakery…

Durio—nose smashed and pouring with blood—gasped as he tried to stand, only for Eurysaces to stand over him and stamp on his sternum.

“Don’t get up,” Eurysaces said, voice raised over Durio’s agonised gasps as the ganger clutched his chest. “Don’t get up or I’ll hurt you some more, understand?”

Durio nodded, breathing in ragged gasps through his open mouth. He gulped air like a fish out of water as blood bubbled and oozed from the ruination of his nose.

“I need to go back to work now, Durio; these loaves won’t bake themselves,” Eurysaces said, ignoring the small crowd that had gathered around them. “So why don’t you crawl back to Hostilius and tell him that if he wants to make me a sensible offer, the bakery’s his. But, if he sends you and some other children to take it from me by force I’ll deliver your heads to him in bread baskets and then knead his skull into a pulp. Do you understand?”

Durio nodded, face contorted with pain.

“Off you go then,” Eurysaces said as he turned away and walked back to the bakery. A small knot of plebeians were already standing at his counter, ready and waiting for their daily bread. “I have customers to serve.”

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